Another fine book set in the segregated South of the 50s and 60s

If the setting and theme of Walter Bennett’s new book, “Leaving Tuscaloosa,” remind you of other books by North Carolina authors, you will not be alone. Bennett will be the guest on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend.

A former lawyer and judge in Charlotte and law professor at the UNC School of Law, Bennett sets his debut novel in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama. It is the 1960s, and the established segregated social order is about to be ripped apart.

The two main characters are teenage boys who had played together when they were younger. As they grew older, they went to segregated schools and lost contact, even as they walked the same streets in their hometown. In the opening scene, the white boy, oddly named Richeboux, drives into the black section of town with a group of his schoolmates and throws an egg into the head of a pastor and community leader. The pastor is the mentor and substitute father of the main black character, Acee Waites.

The pastor’s panic and anger at this humiliating attack leads to a fatal heart attack that sets off 36 hours of turmoil in the community, in the lives of the main characters, and in their families as the plot drives the two boys cascading towards a tragic reconnection.

Years from now, careful historians and literary critics will note how often southern writers of today look back on the late 1950s and 1960s for stories grounded in the complicated relationships between white and black young people.

Several books by North Carolina authors come to mind.

Clyde Edgerton’s recent “Night Train,” set in small-town North Carolina during these times, also featured two teenage boys, one black and one white. Their struggle for friendship confronted the norms of a community determined to hold on to its traditional segregated customs.

The late Doug Marlette’s second novel, “Magic Time,” looked at Mississippi during the 1960s when a young white man and the son of his family’s maid responded to the developing civil rights struggle. Fast forwarding to the 1990s, the story finds the white character still struggling while his black friend is in the U.S. Congress.

UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Minrose Gwin’s “The Queen of Palmyra,” takes us back to 1963. In a small southern town, an 11-year-old white girl spends most of her days in the company of and in the care of her grandmother’s African American maid. The major characters face the challenges of the segregated and oppressive social system at every turn.

 Hillsborough’s Anna Jean Mayhew’s “The Dry Grass of August” takes us back to racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and a poignant story of a young girl whose relationships with her family’s maid and a young black boy add to her family’s stress and shine a bright light on the cruelty of the social norms.

The late Joe Martin’s first and only novel, “Fire in the Rock,” dealt with the extra complications of an interracial triangle of teenagers in late 1950s South Carolina, a white boy, a black boy, and a white girl.

“Leaving Tuscaloosa” fits in this tradition of coming-of-age novels by white authors who grew up in the late 50s and 60s.
It also tells a gripping story that novelist Lee Smith says is “deeply moving, disturbing, haunting, and important.”

So, even if it were not a part of the record of how our writers deal with our region’s history of race relations, “Leaving Tuscaloosa” would be an important book, well worth reading.

Clyde Edgerton: Translating memories into fiction

Is he just writing about himself?

The many fans of Wilmington-based author Clyde Edgerton often ask this question when they are reading his books a they come to parts that are just too real to be made up.

As Edgerton explains on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m., his latest book, “Night Train,” is full of autobiographical connections.

Here are some examples:

Th two main characters of “Night Train” are teenaged boys living in Starke, a fictional Eastern North Carolina town, in the early 1960s. They work together in a furniture shop. Both are interested in music. One, Larry Lime Nolan, is black. He wants to play jazz like Thelonious Monk. The other, Dwayne Hallston, is white. He wants to be another James Brown. They have much in common, but rules of the segregated South make it hard for them to be best friends.

Edgerton acknowledges that the fictional Larry Lime Nolan is based on Larry Lime Hollman, a real black friend of Edgerton when the two were growing up near Durham.

Edgerton has lost touch with the real Larry Lime and hoped the book might get the two back together for a reunion. So far, no luck.

In the book, Dwayne forms a band that wins a chance to play on live television. Everybody in Starke finds a way to watch the evening they perform. In real life, in about 1959, Edgerton’s Dixieland band was chosen to perform on Jim Thornton’s “Saturday Night Country Style” on WTVD. Edgerton explains, “A lot of people remember. He would eat dog food. His sponsor was a dog food company and he would eat a little bit during the show.”

“The show came on at 11:30,” Edgerton remembers. “At 6:30, you got to the parking lot and Jim Thornton would audition the acts in a tent.”

Thornton asked Edgerton what his band wanted to play. “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In,” said Edgerton.
“We don’t do Dixieland, just country,” Thornton told the boys. But he relented and let them try out.
Then he said, “Do you have any more songs?”

Edgerton remembers that the band had only one other song, “Little Liza Jane,” which they played for Thornton and then on live TV, as the first non-country act ever to perform on Thornton’s program.
Later, in the early 1960s, Edgerton was part of a rock band. Like the fictional Dwayne, Edgerton’s band’s leader, Dennis Hobby, wanted to be just like James Brown, cape and all.

Even the book’s villain, the racist Flash Acres, has experiences based on Edgerton’s.  Edgerton remembers how the illnesses and deaths of his parents touched him. So when Flash’s mother is seriously ill, Edgerton has Flash struggle, showing some genuine human love, to arrange for her care. “I wanted to examine the humanity of this man. If he is only a racist without redeeming qualities, then it comes across flat.”

Edgerton does not apologize for the connections to his real life. He says that “Night Train” is autobiographical in the ways that “I think most of my books are… I sort of see myself as a translator. I have my own life and experiences … and, if and when I do write about my own experiences, they tend to be flat.  But if I fictionalize them, by using my own experience, my own observations, and my imagination together, then I can come up with something that’s readable and perhaps a bit more exciting than my own life. So that’s the challenge—to translate.”

If this kind of translating is one of the ways Edgerton develops his magical stories and characters, I have just two words for him:

Keep translating!

Autumn reading suggestions from North Carolina Bookwatch

It is reading time again.
So, courtesy of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, I have some autumn reading (and early Christmas gift) suggestions for your consideration.
Charles Frazier’s new book “Nightwoods” will be on this Sunday’s New York Times best seller list for the second week in a row. “Nightwoods” may not be the same kind of blockbuster that his “Cold Mountain” became, but it is off to a solid start sales wise. “Nightwoods” is set in Frazier’s beloved North Carolina mountains. With engaging characters and a story line of suspense and surprise, this short book could become a favorite. Because it is compact it opens the doors for a wider audience to become acquainted with Frazier’s magnificent gifts. I am betting that many people who did not finish “Cold Mountain” or “Thirteen Moons” will, through “Nightwoods,” become new members of Frazier’s fan club. You can visit with Frazier on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend: Friday, October 21, at 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 23, at 5 p.m.
A new book by a New Bern resident will almost certainly be at or near the top of The New York Times list by the end of October. Nicholas Sparks’s “The Best of Me” is the kind of love story Sparks knows how to tell so well. Set in Oriental, a small town and sailing center on the Pamlico Sound, two high school lovers come back to their hometown twenty years after their last parting. As usual, Sparks makes the romantic sparks fly.  (Oct. 28 and 30)
Andrea Reusing recently won a James Beard award for her complex cooking skills. She owns the acclaimed Chapel Hill restaurant, Lantern, where her amazing Asian-inspired dishes require expert preparation. Nevertheless, her book “Cooking In The Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes” is designed for us normal people who want to cook simple seasonal foods for our families. Using clear language she tells her readers how and when to shop for foods in season. Using the same direct instructions she guides them in the simple steps of preparing those foods. (Nov. 4 and 6)
Jane Borden’s “I Totally Meant to Do That” is a humorous memoir of a young college graduate from Greensboro making her way in a less than friendly but highly addictive New York City. This book should be required reading for every young North Carolinian considering a move to the Big Apple and for the North Carolina parents of any child now living there. (Nov. 11 and 13)
UNC-Wilmington’s Clyde Edgerton’s latest book, “Night Train,” takes us back to a segregated North Carolina town of the mid-sixties. Two teen-aged boys, one white and one black, share a passion for music. The white boy wants to be another James Brown, but the laws and customs of his society make it very hard for his relationship with his black friend to continue. Edgerton explores some of the same themes that the novel and recent movie “The Help” brought to a wider audience. (Nov. 18 and 20)
Thanks to an author who lives in Chapel Hill we can read an up-to-date 007 mystery featuring a James Bond revised for modern times. The author is Jeffrey Deaver, already a very popular and best selling author of a host of thriller novels. The estate of Ian Fleming, the original author of the James Bond series, commissioned Deaver to write the new book, “Carte Blanche.” It is set in current times. Do not worry about James Bond’s age. Today, the original Bond would be about 90 years old, but Deaver’s Bond was born in 1979 and served in Afghanistan. He reminds us of the original Bond, but he is a brand new model. (Nov. 25 and 27)
Enjoy the books and tune in Bookwatch this fall.

Basketball and the small cracks in the wall of segregation

The best thing about the new movie and best-selling book, “The Help,” may be something other than the compelling story and the view into the relationships between white women and their black servants.

So what is this “best thing?”
“The Help” has us talking, thinking, remembering, reflecting, and reconsidering. It reminds us of friendships between some whites and some blacks that were making small cracks in that great wall of segregation.
Like “The Help,” a new North Carolina novel pushes us back to 1963 and requires us to re-experience relationships between whites and blacks during those times.
Clyde Edgerton’s “Night Train” is set in a small North Carolina town, where two teenaged aspiring musicians, one black, the other white, struggle to build a friendship over and around the walls of segregation.
When he talks about his new book, Edgerton shares a poignant back-story. The fictional black teenager is modeled on a real person named Larry Lime Holman.  Holman, like Edgerton, grew up in Bethesda, a small town near Durham.
Although they lived in the same town, Larry Lime’s black school and Clyde’s white school never competed against each other in athletics. But both the white and black athletes hung around Clyde’s uncle’s grocery store. One day they started arguing about which group had the best basketball players.
Larry Lime, Clyde and the other boys decided to do something that broke the rules of their segregated town. They decided to break into the small Old Bethesda School gym and play a game of basketball, whites against blacks.
 “They had nine guys and we just had five,” Edgerton remembers. “And those who weren’t on the court just stood in line waiting to replace a player who got tired.”
Larry Lime’s team “just wore us down,” Clyde says.
From that report, I assume that Larry Lime’s team won. But Clyde says he does not remember for sure.
Clyde and Larry Lime got away with their secret basketball game. But a few days later, when the two boys were shooting baskets at a goal in Clyde’s backyard, Clyde’s dad came out of the house and told the boys that Larry Lime would have to leave. The neighbors might complain.
Clyde fictionalized this real story in an earlier novel, “The Floatplane Notebooks.”
Retired Chapel Hill pharmacist Cliff Butler remembers a similar story from 1963 when his Dunn High School basketball team coached by Dick Knox (later deputy executive director and supervisor of officials for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association) won its league championship.  
That same year, Harnett High, the black school, also had a great team.
The white players and the black players hung around Cliff’s dad’s drugstore. There was some friendly bantering about which team was better, and they decided to settle the question.
So they agreed to meet in the gym at Harnett High, everybody knowing that it would be too dangerous to bring black players to the white high school gym. The black team won a close game, Cliff remembers, thanks in part to “a little guy on their team who shot the lights out that day.”
The next day, word got out in the community about the game. Mr. Hutaff, who ran an insurance agency next door to Cliff’s dad’s drugstore, pulled Cliff aside and told him that he had heard about the game. “It had better not happen again or there will be hell to pay.”
A more secret and more illegal interracial basketball game took place in 1944 between the Duke Medical School team and the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University).

These basketball stories were tiny cracks in the wall of segregation. But it was the accumulation of many tiny cracks that helped bring down that wall. So, every one of those little cracks in is worth remembering and celebrating today.

Dealing with “The Help”

“You-all afraid if we take over we might treat y’all like you treated us. And you might be right.”

It sounds like something Minny, one of the characters in “The Help” (either the book or the new movie), might say to one of the white women who treated their African American servants with such little respect.

But the quote comes, not from “The Help,” but from another book set in 1963 that also explores the changing dynamics of relations between whites and blacks in a southern town. I will give you that book’s title in a minute.

“The Help” and its story of black maids and how they had to kowtow to their white employers has been a best-selling book for more than two years.

What explains its popularity? A good story, sympathetic main characters, and evil villains who get put in their places are part of the answer.

Another reason, I think, is that it has given whites a pathway to understand, confess, and be exorcised from guilt for their part in an exploitive system in which black women lovingly raised white children while their own children and families were left to their own devices.

The book and the movie have not been so popular in the black community.

Last year, I tried to persuade a black pastor to organize some older women in his congregation to discuss “The Help” with whites. He made inquiries and reported to me that he could find no interest in his congregation in such a project.

Recently, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts helped white me understand the mixed feelings that blacks have about “The Help.”

“As Americans,” he wrote, “we lie about race. We lie profligately, obstinately and repeatedly. The first lie is of its existence as an immutable reality delivered unto us from the very hand of God.

“That lie undergirds all the other lies, lies of Negro criminality, mendacity, ineducability. Lies of sexless mammies and oversexed wenches. Lies of docile child-men and brutal bucks. Lies that exonerate conscience and cover sin with sanctimony. Lies that pinched off avenues of aspiration till “the help” was all a Negro woman was left to be.

“I think of those lies sometimes when aging white southerners contact me to share sepia-toned reminiscences about some beloved old nanny who raised them, taught them, loved them, and who was almost a member of the family.


“Reading their emails, I wonder if those folks understand even now, a lifetime later, that that woman did not exist simply as a walk-on character in a white person’s life drama, that she was a fully formed human being with a life, and dreams and dreads of her own.”

Nevertheless, Pitts concedes that “The Help” is a triumph, an “imperfect triumph to have understood this and seek to make others understand it, too.”

Two recent books by North Carolinians set in 1963 can also help us understand Pitts’s “this” as they explore the relationships between blacks and their white employers. One of them, Clyde Edgerton’s “Night Train,” is a compelling read.

It is the source of this column’s opening quote.

The other recent book set in 1963 is UNC-Chapel Hill professor Minrose Gwin’s “The Queen Of Palmyra,” about a young white girl and the trials of the African-American woman who is her family’s servant. It is even deeper, richer, and better than the “The Help.”

Another new book, “The Dry Grass of August” by Anna Jean Mayhew, takes us all the way back to the racially-segregated Charlotte of 1954 and the poignant story of a young girl who loves her family’s African American servant and does not understand the brutal racism that ultimately destroys the person who was the center of her family.